Power to the parents? The MiiPC doesn't quite deliver

This low-cost Android-powered PC lets parents remotely control their kids' computer use. It's a nice idea, but it's not quite ready for prime time.

If you've got kids, then you know exactly how scary a place the Internet can be. Managing where they go and whom they meet online is an unending struggle. Keeping your progeny from wasting their brains on addictive games and/or silly videos is a full-time occupation. It can be a privacy, security, and parenting nightmare.

I should know; I have two digitally savvy teenagers and the gray hair to prove it. So when I heard about ZeroDesktop's MiiPC – a low-cost Android computer whose motto is “Power to the Parents” -- I was keenly interested.

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For $129 to $149 you get a CPU smaller than a Chinese takeout box running Android 4.2.2 in 2GB or 4GB of RAM. You'll have to add your own keyboard, mouse, and display. The key selling point, though, is that the MiiPC allows you to remotely monitor what your kids do on the big bad InterWebs, as well as the amount of time they spend doing it.

It's a nice concept, and so universally appealing that ZeroDesktop CEO Young Song managed to raise $175,000 on Kickstarter – or more than three times the initial goal -- to fund it. The first MiiPCs to roll off the assembly line began shipping to Kickstarter supporters earlier this fall.

Unfortunately, the MiiPC as it currently stands is not quite ready for prime time. I'll start with the good points before I get into the bad and the ugly.

The Good: Fast-n-easy

Startup is nearly instantaneous – just hold your finger on the power button for four seconds and you're in. A helpful tutorial guides you through the process of setting up profiles for each member of your family. Using the admin (parental) account, you determine which apps your kids can access. MiiPC offers its own list of some 40-odd kid friendly apps to choose from, like Seussville, The Khan Academy, or Kidszearch.

(You can also add apps from the Google Play market, but you'll have to jump through some hoops.)

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You can then decide how much time your little nubbins are allowed to spend in front of the screen, either on a daily/weekly basis or app by app. So, for example, little Jimmy can watch videos at Khan Academy all the livelong day, but gets only 30 minutes to play games or watch videos of adorable kittens. His big sister Heather can LOL her friends on Facebook, but only for 3 hours a week. And so on.

If you want to know what Jimmy or Heather are doing at any point in time, you can check the app on your Android or iOS device, or log into your MiiPC account on the Web. If you decide that Jimmy has wasted enough time playing Candy Crush Saga, you can remotely close the app, log him off his account, or even disable it with a few taps.

The Bad: A bit touchy

So much for the good stuff. A device this basic is certain to come with some tradeoffs, and the MiiPC is no exception.

The Android OS is designed for touch, not keyboard and mouse, so some features don't convert smoothly to a desktop experience. For example, some onscreen menus urge you to touch or tap, not click. To use Flipboard, you have to 'flip' through the pages by jerking the mouse sideways. Awkward.

Some screens that are perfectly acceptable on a 10 inch tablet – like Web pages – are disturbingly large on a 20-odd inch display. You can't minimize the browser and run another app alongside it, as you can with a standard desktop or laptop. Because Android typically opens a new browser instance with every link, the back button on the MiiPC Browser is often useless.

If you plan to run Facebook, Twitter, or log into your Google account on the MiiPC, you'll be in for a rude shock: Android can support only one open account at a time, regardless of which MiiPC profile you're logged into.

So if Heather signs into Facebook on her account and doesn't log out, the machine is logged into her Facebook account. The next time mom, dad, or little Jimmy launch Facebook, they'll be staring at Heather's friends and updates. (And we all know what a saucy little minx Heather is.) If you happen to be logged into Google in the browser and you decide to add that browser to Jimmy's set of approved apps, he will also be logged into your Google account. This is a limitation of Android, not the MiiPC interface, but it's still something you need to be wary of.

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Apps are another problem. The iOS app worked fine on an iPhone 4S, but not at all on my iPad 2, despite multiple attempts to reinstall it. MiiPC's support team is aware of the problem but can't reproduce it; your mileage may vary. The Android app is limited to showing you what the kids are doing and blocking/disabling apps, but you can't use it to manage apps or set time limits. For a system built around Android, that's just odd.

The ugly: No Web controls

Possibly because of its Kickstarter origins, the MiiPC does not have the feel of a finished product. Its start-up screen is sparse and a bit inscrutable for nongeeks; click on the wrong icons or make the wrong choices, and you can get stuck in an endless loop. How did no one at MiiPC notice this?

In fact, whenever you use the MiiPC in any way other than the ways described in the tutorial, things start to break down. I can't imagine anyone using it to monitor kids older than, say, 10. My teenagers took one look and said 'meh.'

Here's my biggest objection. There are no controls whatsoever beyond limiting the apps your kids can use and the amount of time they spend using them. The MiiPC Browser will tell you what Web sites they visit, but there's no way to stop your kids from visiting them, short of disabling the browser. It also won't tell you what search terms they're looking for. So you can see that Heather visited Google Maps, but you can't see that she was searching for a suicide hotline or an abortion clinic.

Some people feel strongly parents should not censor the Web for their kids. I think that up to a certain age you absolutely have to. At some point you stop blocking and start monitoring, and eventually you let them fly solo. Where each of those points are will likely vary from kid to kid and is something only a parent can decide. But either way, it's an option someone would logically expect from a product with a motto like “Power to the Parents,” and I'm flabbergasted MiiPC doesn't offer it.

The good news is that it's early yet. As this post was going live, ZeroDesktop was readying a firmware update that could solve at least of these problems. And for some people, the low price tag might be tempting enough to take a flyer on it, despite the snags. Personally, though, if my kids were younger and I was not a geek, I'd wait to see what MiiPC 2.0 looked like.

Got a question about social media or privacy? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he'll make something up). Follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to's, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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